FROM THE STANDS: Spring Practice

Was that the Texasiest, most unbelievably Texasist basketball game you’ve seen the Longhorns play this year? Of course it was. There were weird turnovers (traveling on an inbound pass), large amounts of time without any points, being out-hustled and out-worked (there was a guy with ONE leg that took perfectly healthy two-legged Longhorns to the hole with quickness)… But there were stretches where Texas looked terrific and seemed destined to overwhelm Butler… But in the end the Bulldogs hit big shots and Texas missed free throws, and the result was a 1st round exit for the second time in three Tourney appearances. Texas hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in seven seasons. Think of all the players that have come through the program since the 2007-8 season, not one played into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Add Jonathan Holmes to that list as well, as his career at Texas ended last Thursday.

This season was a complete roller coaster. The Longhorns started the season ranked No.10 and the excitement and anticipation were high. Sky high. The Horns were the surprise of the Big 12 in 2013/14, rebounding from a terrible 16-18 season the year before that saw Julien Lewis, Myck Kabongo, Jaylen Bond, Sheldon McClellan and Ioannis Papatreou transfer/go pro. In their place stepped Isaiah Taylor, Kendall Yancy and a reborn Cameron Ridley. Texas went 24-11 that year, beating Kansas, Iowa State in Baylor en route to a third place Big 12 finish. A thrilling win over Arizona State got Texas to round two, where they lost to Michigan. With everyone back from that 24-11 team and with the addition of superstar Myles Turner, the 10th ranked Horns looked ready to return to the top tier of the Big 12, challenging Kansas and Iowa State for the Big 12 Title. And it started off so well. Texas went 7-0 to start the season and climbed to No.6, despite the loss of point guard Isaiah Taylor with a wrist injury. A monster showdown with No.1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena in December did not disappoint. Even without Taylor, Texas held a halftime lead, and even though they lost by 12, everyone was impressed with a young Texas team that looked like they belonged in the conversation with the elite of the basketball world.

A loss to Stanford was a bit surprising, but no one made much of it. Texas was 12-2/1-0 and ranked No.10 when the 16th ranked oklahoma sooners came to town for a Big Monday date in early January. Texas was whipped, thoroughly and entirely, losing by 21 and wasn’t really in the game after the first 5 minutes. That was followed up  by an 11-point loss at Oklahoma State. Big wins over West Virginia and TCU set up the big headliner of the season, a home date with Kansas in late January. Texas was in it, hanging tough and playing well, but the inability to score down the stretch led to a 75-62 loss. The Horns went into a tailspin, losing three straight: a frustrating loss at Iowa State where they came back from way down (highlighted by Jonathan Holmes’ ejection and a huge second-half rally), a blowout at Baylor and another frustrating loss at home, this time to Oklahoma State due to missed free throws (among other things). Now, all of the sudden this team that was ranked No.6 and 7-1, was 14-8 and 3-6 in conference nine weeks later. Three wins against the bottom of the conference (K-State, Tech, TCU), were followed by a four-game losing streak where Texas played well at Kansas, ou and at home against Iowa State, but they were still losses. A Big 12 Title contender at the beginning of the season, Texas was on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in with a 17-12 record, including 7-10 in conference. In the best stretch of the season, Texas beat No.14 Baylor, K-State and Tech to get into the “last four in” of the Dance before losing in horrifical fashion to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament. Texas’ strength of schedule got them off the play-in list and into the field, but one game later, at the hands of Butler, the season was over.

There will be lots of decisions coming for players. Myles Turner said he hasn’t made any decisions about the NBA yet. The scouts love his ability to pass, shoot free throws and hit from outside; but he needs to run the floor better, get stronger and impose his will inside. All of those things he can do at Texas, or in the NBA. Isaiah Taylor, Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh are other guys weighing their professional options. I see a place for all three in the NBA, but they need to improve their offensive games to stick on a roster. Even the most defensive of defensive specialists in the Association can shoot; they just don’t. Ibeh has wonderful range and can dominate on defense, but you can’t afford to be an complete offensive liability in the pros, and he needs some work. Ridley will likely get drafted if he comes out, because his size and width are not something you can teach; however, like Turner he needs to show he can score and be productive when defenses are geared to stop him. As for Taylor, he needs to work on his shot. He’s terrific penetrating, but there were too many times when defenses simply wouldn’t allow him to drive and he couldn’t score. That was the issue with TJ Ford after his freshman season, so he shot 1,000 jumpers a day all summer and fall. The result was TJ Ford. I think Taylor, as well as Ibeh and Ridley, can and will get there, but they need another year of school. Myles Turner can go now, and while I’d like him to stay, if it were my son I’d say “go get that money, young man.” That’s life-changing money, so get it while you can.

And what about Rick Barnes? I don’t have an answer. He’s been at Texas since 1999 and he put Texas on the map as a basketball school. He pulled in talent from all over the country and has taken Texas to new heights as a basketball team. Is that enough? Is it time for a new voice, a new message? Is he ready to do this elsewhere, for a different fanbase and school? I don’t know about that, but I do know this- something needs to change for Texas to move forward with the program. If that means a new staff, or new assistants, or an entirely new approach for the current staff, then that’s what it means. This model, the one that worked so well in the past, seems broken to me at this point. I think Rick Barnes could go Gary Patterson and change it up if he wants to. Does he want to? Does AD Steve Patterson want him to? And what does him returning/leaving mean to the guys on the roster, or those coming in? I don’t know yet. I expect in the next 10 days we will have a definitive answer on what is happening, and we will address it when it does.

On to football! Oh, and go get’em Ladies! The Lady Longhorns are in the Sweet 16 against UConn.


Pro Day

Tuesday was Texas’ annual pro day, allowing those draft eligible to showcase their talents for the NFL scouts. Every NFL team was there as well several Horns in the NFL, like Kenny Vaccaro and Flash Goodwin. The highlights:

  • David Ash threw for Jaxon Shipley, John Harris and Geoff Swaim. Very cool.
  • Jaxon Shipley ran a 4.45, which was much faster than I expected. He didn’t light up the bench press rep (9), but his speed and hands will give him a chance.
  • Malcom Brown didn’t lift or run, holding on his combine numbers, but he did participate in drills and looked excellent. He did nothing to hurt his chances of being a first round draft pick.
  • Quandre Diggs and Jordan Hicks also stood by their combine numbers in the 40 and just did the drills. Like Brown, both looked good and solidified themselves as draft picks. I don’t know how much they improved their stock, but they didn’t hurt themselves.
  • Malcolm Brown looked terrific.
  • Cedric Reed didn’t participate in any of the workouts, dealing with his injury and recovery. I’ve read he didn’t do anything to hurt his stock by not being able to work out, but I just don’t know if that will be true.
  • Geoff Swaim was far more athletic than anyone expected. He long jumped 10-4 and had a very good vertical. He didn’t get many catches last season, but he showed the ability to block and block well. Not sure if he gets drafted, but he’s going to someone’s camp with this effort.
  • Two guys that went from the bubble to likely drafted players are John Harris and Mykkele Thompson. Thompson ran a 4.41 in the 40 and did 18 reps on the bench press and showed the great skills in coverage he did in 2014. Harris ran a 4.5, which is terrific for a guy that translates to the h-back/tight end role he likely plays at the next level. On the bubble going in, I think they both improved their chances of getting drafted dramatically.

It’s almost draft time. We will have more on that is we get closer.


Spring Practice

The Horns kick off spring practice on Wednesday. Remember last week when I talked about how frightening spring break is for college football coaches? Well, Charlie Strong’s guys got the message loud and clear: no issues with anyone. Great start, fellas.

Charlie Strong pulled his guys together Sunday night after spring break and gave them an overview of the goals of spring practice, and that goal is simple: get better.

Texas was 6-7 last year was thoroughly dominated in their final two games, making three blowouts losses (BYU. Again) on the season. Mistakes left two more wins on the field (ou, UCLA) and zero offensive production and more mistakes led two other double-digit losses (K-State, Baylor). 6-7. Charlie Strong didn’t come to town to play in the Texas Bowl. He didn’t come here to go .500. He came here to compete and win rings, Big 12 and Natty’s. That’s the goal, and if you aren’t playing for them you aren’t succeeding. Texas didn’t compete for either of those things last year, so the immediate goal is to get better. Now. Coach Strong let everyone know that every job is open. Every job. He let them know that even winning the job in spring isn’t set in stone, because coming in this summer is a super hungry and super talented group of freshmen ready to make their mark. There is no seniority. There is no pecking order. It’s about getting better, and whoever makes this team better gets the playing time.

We are going to dive way into every position and every unit as spring practice plays out, but this week let’s take a look at five topics on my mind (and yours) going into spring practice:

Quarterback

This is like getting the weather or sports at the beginning of the newscast- what you want most first. Everyone has Jerrod Heard penciled in as the starter going into 2015 because he’s a master of the spread and Tyrone Swoopes struggled so often last year… But everyone hold on.

Word from the off-season reports are Mr. Swoopes was unaware he lost his job.He’s battling and fighting to hold on to it, no matter what anyone says or thinks they want. The new offense is going to benefit Heard, but it sure can’t hurt Swoopes, either. He’s not the runner that Heard is, but he has an absolute cannon and one thing Heard does not: a year of experience under his belt. The two will split first team reps this spring and see if one player can run the offense better than the other. Texas wants both players to succeed, pushing each other to play better, meaning Texas gets better.

If Texas is to get better, the quarterback has to play better. This battle is the most high profile of spring practice.


Offensive Line

Not as high profile but just as important, the o-line needs to get better. Last year the starting tackles were suspended (one for the year, one for good), another retired, the starting center was knocked out for the year and other members of the depth chart were shown the door. The result was a mishmash of young, inexperienced players that were forced to play before they were ready. The output showed that was a correct assessment.

An infusion of early enrollees and junior college transfers, as well as a year of experience for those playing last year, offer more options for Joe Wickline. A master of the run game and blocking schemes in the spread, Wickline seemed a bit out of his element last year in the ground & pound offense Texas was running. Now, with the spread coming in, Wickline will be able to use his expertise to help his players with leverage and positioning in opening holes for the backs.

We will work through what all the new players bring and how they fit into the offensive line as we move forward with spring practice, but know this: a better offensive line isn’t the highest profile battle or public priority of spring practice, but it might be the most important. If the ol can’t block, it isn’t going to matter who is playing quarterback.


Special Teams

Horrifical is the word that comes to mind. The kick return game was non-existent, the points team was like watching a child learn to ride a bike (out of control, not sure where they are going, sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t, but you are expecting the worst). The punt team set up the opponent for more points than they scored and the cover teams gave up plays that cost games (UCLA, ou and an argument could be made for Baylor). In fact, I don’t remember one great special teams play last year. I remember a holding call on a punt that was a touchback, lots of fair catches, no blocked kicks, blocked kicks returned for touchdowns, terrible coverage, missed points. Was there anything good? Am I wrong?

A new coach (Jeff Traylor) has to get the right people and right attitudes on the field to turn it around. Special teams are the easiest and fastest way to get better. If Texas simply covers two kicks last year, they beat UCLA and they beat ou for the second straight season.


Playmakers

John Harris, Jaxon Shipley and Malcolm Brown are gone, meaning the team’s leading rusher and top two wide outs are no longer on the team. Texas needs to find the personnel to replace them. Top candidates are Jonathan Gray, who by all accounts had maybe the best off-season of anyone (both as a leader and a player). Another guy the staff is very high on is Duke Catalon, who redshirted last year and will jump into the running back mix with Gray. The staff LOVES his ability to catch, run, block and bring the hammer.

Outside Texas wants Armanti Foreman to be the consistent threat he flashed last year showing speed and athleticism. Two other players Texas wants to see rebound are Marcus Johnson (bad season) and Daje Johnson (bad decisions), who had excellent years in 2013 but not in 2014. Daje Johnson has the ability to be the game-breaker he was at times earlier in his career, and from all accounts he’s out of the dog house ready to go.

Dorian Leonard, Garrett Gray, Lorenzo Joe and Roderick Bernard (returning from a knee injury) will compete with the Johnsons, Foreman and Jacorey Warrick for playing time in the three- and four-wide out sets.

Not only will they battle each other, they will have to hold off the kids coming in this fall. This competition will only make everyone better. I can’t wait to see Daje this spring.

New Blood

Immediately the name that comes to mind is Malik Jefferson. The 5-star linebacker could likely be the starter at linebacker in game one, but there are others that are equally important. Guys like Tristan Nickelson, Brandon Hodges and Connor Williams on the offensive line and Quincy Vasser on the defensive line look to be immediate contributors and/or starters. Redshirt freshmen Jerrod Heard, Duke Catalon, Blake Whiteley (a juco that redshirted), Jermaine Roberts, Derek Roberson, Edwin Freeman, John Bonney and others escaping my mind will also get a shot to make the two-deep this spring and establish themselves before those freshmen get to to town.

Remember, also, that two new coaches are coming in: wide outs coach Jay Norvell and tight ends/special teams coach Jeff Traylor are on the staff, replacing Bruce Chambers and Les Koenning. The energy they bring has been immediately noticeable, both on the field and the recruiting trail.

If Texas is to get better, they need the new guys, both on the staff and the roster, to bring their intensity, talent and ability to the team.
So…

Here we go. The success of the fall will be a direct result of the efforts in the off-season and spring practice. One thing that I see completely different is no one is being escorted off the property like they were last year. I know they Great Texas Exit was in the summer before the season started, but it doesn’t seem like a mountain of attrition is about to go down like it did this time last year. Everyone seems to be on the same page.

Who steps up? Who emerges from out of nowhere? Who re-establishes themselves as the starter? Who leads the team? I can’t wait to find out.

It’s time to get better.

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